In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the Finch children, Jem and Scout, are presented with few positive role models among the town of Maycomb’s adult Caucasian population. One notable exception, however, is Miss Maudie Atkinson, the Finch’s neighbor. Describing their neighbor as “a relatively benign presence,” Scout initially gives the impression of a somewhat strained relationship, as when she explains the children’s unofficial arrangement with Miss Maudie regarding the latter’s property:
“Our tacit treaty with Miss Maudie was that we could play on her lawn, eat her scuppernongs if we didn’t jump on the arbor, and explore her vast back lot, terms so generous we seldom spoke to her, so careful were we to preserve the delicate balance of our relationship . . .”
The relationship between the Finch children, and their friend Dill, however, is close, and Miss Maudie is a regular and welcome fixture in their lives, baking cakes for them (“When she was admitted into our confidence, every time she baked she made a big cake and three little ones, and she would call across the street: ‘Jem Finch, Scout Finch, Charles Baker Harris, come here!’”) and providing some much needed female companionship for the young girl, whose other main female role models were Calpurnia, the family’s African American housekeeper, acts as disciplinarian while Atticus’s sister, Aunt Alexandra, is a constant source of irritation for the young tomboy. Miss Maudie, in contrast, is a friend, a confidant, and an advisor, educating the children on the Radley family and enlightening them on the intolerance of what she called “the foot-washers,” the fundamentalist Baptists who scolded anybody they deemed insufficiently pious. Scout comments on Miss Maudie’s prickly relationship to the “foot-washers,” noting, “[m]y confidence in pulpit Gospel lessened at the vision of Miss Maudie stewing forever in various Protestant hells.” Scout sums up her respect for Miss Maudie by stating the following:
“Jem and I had considerable faith in Miss Maudie. She had never told on us, had never played cat-and-mouse with us, she was not at all interested in our private lives. She was our friend. How so reasonable a creature could live in peril of everlasting torment was incomprehensible.”
As Lee’s novel progresses and the atmosphere around the Finch home begins to grow more tense as a result of Atticus’s defense of Tom Robinson in the latter’s rape trial, Miss Maudie’s role in the children’s lives becomes more important. Miss Maudie, in contrast to many of the town’s people, is a firm believer in justice, and her perceptions of justice preclude the persecution of an innocent man irrespective of the color of his sin. As Lee’s novel nears its end, the subject of racism remains a part of the town’s social fabric. Scout and Jem have learned from the examples of their father the proper way of conducting oneself, but there remain many in Maycomb who are resistant to change, especially in the realm of segregation. It is Miss Maudie, not the aforementioned fundamentalists, who most embodies the meaning of Scripture. Scout’s admiration for this sometimes cantankerous middle-aged woman only grows when Miss Maudie draws that distinction between presumed and actual fealty to God:
“The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us; the handful of people with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord’s kindness am l.”
Miss Maudie is one of the novel’s most enduringly decent characters, and served an important role in Scout’s emotional maturation. That the young girl admired the older woman is not surprising given their shared values.